Behind every great opera is a superb orchestra. Wagner envisioned a totalizing opera space in which the audience couldn’t see the mechanisms behind the art and hid the orchestra away in a pit. And in most opera houses, the orchestra remains concealed in some dark, (sometimes unsavory) underground space. But at Opera in the Heights, the orchestra resides in plain view right off the side of the stage. Beyond the pleasure of being able to see the timpanist swing wonderful round strokes, this arrangement also highlights one of Oh!’s greatest strengths in Verdi’s La Traviata: a superb orchestra.
La Traviata marks the beginning of an ambitious season for Oh! with two Donizetti operas—Don Pasquale and Lucia di Lammermoor—and the great Mozart opera Don Giovanni. With Artistic Director Enrique Carreón-Robledo at the helm, it promises to be a musical delight. His effusive enthusiasm came across in the quality of the orchestra. It leaned into emotional passages and tore through fast arias unlike any previous Oh! production I’ve heard.
As brilliantly as the orchestra sparkled in this production, though, Soprano Julia Ebner, singing the part of Violetta in the Emerald Cast, would have charmed and inspired even if she had been entirely alone on stage. Ebner made her Oh! debut last season as Juliette in Romeo et Juliette, and she is a welcomed return in this part. The great test for any soprano in this role is “Sempre libera” at the close of Act One. After a round of serious singing, Ebner floated over the vocal hurdles with true agility. On top of being technically impressive, Ebner captured the tragedy in Violetta’s character beautifully, directing lyrical lines instinctively with nimble dynamic control.
First performed in Venice in 1853, La Traviata has become an opera staple—hugely popular and lavishly performed. Its frequent performances don’t seem excessive, though, in large part because of the prepossessing music. Opera scholar George Martin remarks part of why La Traviata’s popularity outdoes Aida, La Bohème or Carmen is because it calls for a smaller cast and orchestra and is best heard in a smaller opera house. Oh! captures an intimacy that a larger opera house would swallow.
Oh!’s orchestra masters the music and does so in the uniquely intimate space of their hall—it’s a win-win for this Verdi opera. With only four first violinists, it is difficult to manage clear rising scales and match high pitches, especially when passages are paralleled in octaves by the second violins and flutes. But last night’s musicians, led by concertmaster John Cramer, made this feat look easy. The clarinet solo in Act Two was exquisite and full of the overwhelming emotion vivid throughout the libretto and score, adding, almost inconceivably, to Violetta’s heartbreaking plea “Love me as much as I love you!” The finale in Act Two—a rousing number with a full stage of remorse, lament, love, and duels—came together seamlessly because of the solid orchestral foundation lining up all the independent parts.
Stage Director Lynda McKnight chose to set this production in present-day Paris. The stage was a modern silver and white, the costumes were replete with an “I heart Paris” T-shirt and Converse shoes, and the pajamas Violetta died in were a simple cream set you might find at Target. Without the period-piece guise, the music was ever more highlighted as timeless. The violin solo in Violetta’s last living moments seemed to weep—and the audience could look over and see the bow strokes as if the violin, too, were another voice in the opera.
Verdi’s La Traviata runs until Oct 13 with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale on its heels opening November 15. For more info, check out Opera in the Heights’ website.